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Friday, October 8, 2010

Remembering the Great Pumpkin and the Horror of Sincerity

(Note-- we're cracking out The Great Pumpkin, so I'm reprinting this review. Enjoy!) 

My daughters and I watched IT'S THE GREAT PUMPKIN, CHARLIE BROWN tonight. One is five and one is eight and the Charlie Brown DVDs are a big hit with them, so we are careful not to break them out until the right month, so they retain their specialness. We can watch each over and over again, but only in October, or November, or December. The arrival of GREAT PUMPKIN announces the arrival of a bevy of holiday specials that have drilled their way into my mind. Lately I've enjoyed returning to these things with fresh eyes.

GREAT PUMPKIN in particular resonates with me, particularly because of the strangely chilling fantasy Snoopy the dog has about the most vile and butcherous war of the last century.

The center of GREAT PUMPKIN is Linus, whom we recall as the voice of reason in the 1965 CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS. There, while Charlie Brown obsessed about the growing commercialization of Christmas, Linus was the even-handed guy who said, 'Charlie Brown, you're the only guy I know who can take a nice holiday like Christmas and make it a problem." And at the end, it is Linus who steps to Brown's rescue, tapping the microphone and simply reciting the Christmas story. That's 1965.

Now, in GREAT PUMPKIN, it's a year later and we find Linus in the thrall of complete religious fervor of his own device, as the boy proselytizes to the gang about the impending arrival of a giant pumpkin-being who favors the children with the "sincerest" pumpkin patch with a visit and gifts. The gang thinks he's a loon, the girl who loves him loses a whole evening coming to the same conclusion, and in the end Linus shivers in the cold until being rescued by his hateful but ultimately caring sister Lucy.

What is this supposed to mean? If CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS was about keeping the true spirit of Christmas (while enjoying the benefits of a commercialized holiday), what is GREAT PUMPKIN about? It seems to be a satire on fringe religion ("we're separated by denominational differences," Linus insists when Charlie Brown professes faith in Santa Claus.) But it's kind of sad that Linus, the voice of wisdom in the Christmas special, is so misguided here. We close out the special with Linus raving-- RAVING-- that this time something went wrong, but next year his pumpkin patch will be sincere enough to merit the arrival of the Great Pumpkin. In this he sounds like one of those cultists who keeps moving back the end of the world.

Meanwhile, I don't think when I watched this as a child that I realized that these children are all just little adults. There are no parents in sight, and they get around about as well as college students. Better: in the beginning, Lucy and Linus pick a pumpkin and carve it with a butcher knife in the span of about forty-five seconds. They throw a killer party whose only non-child visitor is a beagle that fantasizes about war and mayhem, and swims in punch.

I still love Snoopy's fantasy of the Red Baron, the moment I waited for every year, the dark water-color world made ominous by the high hat and woodwinds of Vince Guaraldi's soundtrack. Snoopy creeps through bombed-out France, and all the images of the Great War-- barbed wire, cratered earth, ruined shelters, blackened skies, bullet-riddled fuselages, churning black smoke-- all become playthings, and beautiful and chilling ones. Barbed wire is stuff that you and I don't blink at, but there's a generation-- some of whom still breathe-- that grow nauseated at the sight of it. Barbed wire was the patchy stitching that only festered and worsened the wounds of World War I. But there it is, amid the ruined houses of Snoopy's imagination, and suddenly I realize Disney could have made a park called Somme Land, named after the famous battle that spat out men like seeds.


  1. Couple of points come to mind:

    1. Linus *does* present an interesting challenge---at one and the same time, he's the most reasonable and the most grounded---as well as being the most likely to quote scripture---but he's also the one who clings to a security blanket and believes in the Great Pumpkin. I don't think that's accidental on Schulz's part, and I tend to disagree with you about Linus being "fringe". I think this is Schulz being circumspect---pretty much any mainstream religion has, at its core, some tenets which require about as much of a leap of faith as the Great Pumpkin (who, we must presume, I think, begat the FSM). In this special, we get to see Linus have a crisis of faith, but it's a real, bonafide one, from a genuine character.

    Schulz does some *interesting* things with religion & philosophy---way more than you'd expect (lots of thinly veiled Kierkegaard). If you're curious, look into books from Robert L. Short.

    2. Magical Realism: I think that's what's actually going on in the stories...you're right, the kids are basically adults, but taken as a whole, the stories move seamlessly between worlds that *generally* make sense, worlds that really don't make sense, when you stop and think about them, and worlds that are clearly complete fantasies---but ones which can be shared with other characters, and which later join back into a mainstream storyline with no impact whatsoever. Snoopy isn't just a dog who thinks in English but can't speak it---though he can type it and manage to communicate without speaking it---he's a *delusional* dog who does all that. And everyone else is totally fine with him being that way. Remember the joke about the girl who finds the enchanted, talking frog, but won't kiss him, because "a talking frog is way cooler"? Chuck should be *making bank* with that dog. How can you be a loser when you can whip out your delusional Beagle who moonlights as a novelist?

    But, two thumbs up for magical realism---my wife and I have commented about the same thing on Glee...reality simply takes a vacation at convenient times. (ProTip: watch Glee DVD extras for "making of" clips, which are all about the aspects of musical production that just happen by magic in the world of the show. Almost as interesting as the show itself!)

  2. You know, if I take a step back and look at the Great Pumpkin special with a fresh eye, I can't believe it exists. It is *so* strange, and not even self-referentially, deliberately strange the way Olive, the Other Reindeer was with its winking references. This special references nothing; when it's weird it is weird in its own strange and delusional little way.

    You're also right that it's very strange to see characters wrestling with faith in this way. It's actually darkly comic, with the deeply faithful Linus also being the proponent of a crazy faith. It begs us to wrestle with the importance of sincerity-- and ultimately to reject sincerity as any kind of marker of truth. It's amazing that that's what Schultz is saying: sincerity is for illusions. Truth is truth. I haven't heard that kind of straight talk on TV much other than in the words of Cliff Huxtable, telling his son that "this is just the way I am" is the stupidest reason not to do your homework imaginable.